Southbrook Vineyards – A Winery Profile

Southbrook of Niagara: Re-Opening, Re-Imagining and Coming up Orange

By David Lawrason

This feature was commissioned by Southbrook Vineyards.

I first met Bill Redelmeier 30 years ago when he launched Southbrook Farms wines from within his family market garden business on Major Mackenzie Drive in Vaughan, “the city above Toronto”. I wrote about this daring venture in the Globe and Mail on July 8, 1992. I won’t recount ancient details except to say that the creativity, agricultural conscience and marketing acumen that created Southbrook is still front and centre at Ontario’s leading organic winery, now in Niagara-on-the-Lake. And it is based on Redelmeier’s love of wine, tasting it, talking about it, and being a collector and member of Toronto and Niagara tasting groups all these years.

I conducted my first live interview with a winemaker in over a year during a distanced visit to the winery in early June. It was being prepared for re-opening, and for a W Network film shoot. It is a striking visual setting, with the hospitality area designed by architect Jack Diamond, which includes the long mauve wall out front, and expansive views of the vineyards through floor to ceiling glass once you have entered. It oozes breezy sophistication, but now the tasting room has been turned into a “pick and pack” shipping and staging area, and it may never re-open in its traditional role.

Bill
Bill Redelmeier

COVID has changed Southbrook for the better, according to Redelmeier, who says the past 12 months have been the best in the winery’s history in terms of direct sales, customer appreciation and contact. “I always felt that the pre-Covid methods of engaging customers at wineries were somehow insufficient. What is the point of having a crowded, busy tasting room where people are touring five wineries in a day and by the end of the day can’t remember what wineries they visited.”

Instead, on-line sales and direct to consumer shipments and personal deliveries have taken over. When most owners and CEOs would be retired at his age, Bill and his son, Andrew, are now, between them, on the road four days a week in southern Ontario direct delivering.

“I love driving. I know every exit off the 401 and 403 between London and Kingston. I have put 120,000 kms on the odometer in the last year. I love meeting my customers on their grounds, and connecting to their communities, broadening our base to include their neighbours. And getting to know their local agriculture and produce.”

Indeed, these connections are creating a growing sideline business of selling produce, cheese and charcuterie through the winery. None of this should be surprising given Redelmeier’s agriculture and local market roots.  It is the ethos of Southbrook. And when visitors come to Southbrook this summer it will be to do seated “flight tastings” and pairings by chef Bryce.  May I recommend the asparagus pizza, and the amazing lemon chevre by Ruth Klassen of Monforte Cheese in Stratford.

Southwest Elevation
Southwest Elevation

Organics, Biodynamics and The Orange Wine Phenomenon

Southbrook was founded in 1992, but its real impact would not be felt until the Redelmeier family sold much of their farmland in Vaughan, purchased a vineyard and built the impressive winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake that opened in 2008. The site was recommended to him by winemaker Ann Sperling, who was a strong proponent of organic viticulture, both at Malivoire where she was working at the time, and on her family estate in East Kelowna where she grew up. She convinced Bill to produce organically and biodynamically from the start, and found the current property having no contiguous chemically farmed neighbours. Due to its warmer inland location and soil minerality she also knew it would suit Bordeaux variety reds and chardonnay. She became Southbrook’s Director of Winemaking and Viticulture in 2005.

“Farming organically is a different mindset. We must tackle the root cause of problems rather than treating symptoms as they often do in a conventional approach,” Ann explains.

Ann Sperling
Ann Sperling

I don’t want to spend a lot of time here detailing organics, and the subsequent, more stringent biodynamics, but I will say two things. It does, to me, increase wine’s flavour depth, complexity and energy. But it is a riskier approach in Niagara where humidity in the summer and fall create “disease pressure” most efficiently cured by synthetic/chemical sprays. Organic viticulture in Niagara takes more diligence, patience, labour, and acceptance that sometimes nature will cause things to go awry.  Except for the odd small lot, Southbrook wine is fully certified organic and biodynamic by leading international bodies!

As organic winemaking has expanded around the world, it has given rise to “natural wines” and “orange wines”. They are not exactly the same thing, but they are cousins. Natural wines are by definition organic, but made with wild yeast fermentations, low sulphur, skin contact, stem inclusion and any number of measures that produce less fruit-driven, commercial and pretty wines. As Redelmeier puts it, “they are wines being made by a generation that doesn’t want to drink what their parents are drinking.”

Orange wines are more specific, and indeed Bill Redelmeier and Ann Sperling were the driving force in orange wines being officially accepted as a category by Ontario’s VQA regulatory body in 2017, one of the first in the world to do so. Orange is not the official name. It is more accurately “skin fermented white wine”, or white wine made like a red where fermentation with the skins extracts an orange colour, tannin and very tea-like, stemmy flavours. Of note, Southbrook insisted that VQA require orange wine production be declared before harvest so that producers could not take botched, oxidative and volatile wine and call it “skin fermented” after the fact.

When orange wine first emerged globally, I found early examples foreign and hard to take, but winemaking (balance) is improving, and I have ‘acquired the taste’ through repetition. Hundreds of others have as well when it comes to Southbrook’s orange wines, which are based on the fruity vidal grape, more often found in Ontario Icewine. It seems the ideal candidate.

Bill Redelmeier explained that Ann Sperling convinced him to make 200 cases of the first vintage in 2014. It sold well, and the quantity doubled the next year to 400 cases, then 800 cases, and so on. In 2020, Southbrook made just over 3000 cases, taking up every biodynamically organically grown vidal they could find, and making one that blends vidal and chardonnay musqué. When the Societe des Alcools du Quebec (SAQ) gives you a pre-release order for 1000 cases, one gains confidence. LCBO purchases to date have not been anywhere near this number, yet it is the hottest direct delivery wine in Southbrook’s portfolio in Ontario.

Still within this natural realm, Southbrook has recently branched into Wild Fermented Cider and Bubbly Pet-Nat, a sparkling wine bottled partway through its fermented to capture the carbon dioxide.

Southbrook Vines
Southbrook Vines

The Southbrook Portfolio

There are three tiers to Southbrook, plus a handful of off-shoots and outliers, as Bill Redelmeier and Ann Sperling love to dabble. The main tiers more or less correspond to what many wineries are doing at three different price and quality points. Before breaking them down, it’s important to remember all are organic, and they are drawing from estate vineyards at the winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake, from favoured organic grower Heather Laundry, who has three organic sites, from the organic Saunders Vineyard on the Beamsville Bench, and some are purchased from other organic growers, most now going into less expensive wines like the Connect series.

It’s illuminating to go from the top down, because the cascading effect informs the lower priced, larger volume wines. There is a ‘barrel or batch’ selection process that occurs each vintage, with the top lots from the Estate going into the top tier red called Poetica. Named Poetica for poems ascribed on each vintage from a different Canadian poet, the Poetica red is based on the Bordeaux model (cabernet, merlot, petit verdot). It always shows more heft, structure and depth and is designed for cellaring.  And by the way, the notion of age-worthiness underpins Bill Redelmeier’s definition of quality, as it does throughout Europe. There is a considerable wine library at Southbrook, most wines earmarked for offerings to the 160-member wine club.

East Elevation

The Southbrook Estate wines ($30 to $50) from their Niagara-on-the-Lake property bear the Four Mile Creek appellation. They are focused on red Bordeaux varieties – cabernet franc, merlot and cabernet sauvignon, plus chardonnay.


Southbrook Estate Wines

Southbrook Poetica Red 2016

Southbrook Poetica Red 2016, Four Mile Creek, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario ($70.00)

Southbrook Estate Grown Small Lot Merlot 2017

Southbrook Estate Grown Small Lot Merlot 2017, Four Mile Creek, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario ($45.00)

Southbrook Estate Grown Small Lot Petit Verdot 2017

Southbrook Estate Grown Small Lot Petit Verdot 2017, Four Mile Creek, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario ($45.00)


Laundry Vineyard

This quality/price tier also includes single vineyard wines from the organic grower, Heather Laundry, who now sells the majority of her grapes to Southbrook. Heather graduated from the first class of Brock University’s Cool Climate Oenology and Viticultural Institute. “She loves wine and is always tasting to understand what winemakers are looking for,” Redelmeier said. She has two vineyards – lake-cooled  Lincoln Lakeshore for cabernet franc, merlot, pinot noir and chardonnay and chardonnay musque, plus a another cool site on Vinemount Ridge for gamay and riesling. The Laundry wines are clearly identified as such on the labels. Whimsy is a label used to denote small lot one-off bottlings

Southbrook Laundry Vineyard Riesling 2020

Southbrook Whimsy Laundry Vineyard Riesling 2020, Vinemount Ridge, Niagara Peninsula, Ontario ($34.95)

Southbrook Laundry Vineyard Gamay 2018, Vinemount Ridge, Niagara, Ontario ($29.95)

Southbrook Laundry Vineyard Gamay 2018

Southbrook Laundry Vineyard Pinot Noir 2018, Lincoln Lakeshore, Niagara Peninsula, Ontario ($35.00)

Southbrook Laundry Vineyard Chardonnay 2018

Southbrook Laundry Vineyard Chardonnay 2018, Lincoln Lakeshore, Niagara Peninsula, Ontario ($35.00)


Triomphe

The largest and most important tier is Triomphe, selling in the $20 to $30 range depending on the varietal. This is where wines are classified if not hitting the Poetica or Estate tiers, and it is all about lot and barrel selections. It is a process that is preferable in my view than having grapes being grown and wines made to fit a volume price point. All the grapes were grown to the same intent, and quality is only sorted after top tiers are identified. That means there can be some very good wines leftover.

“The Triomphe tier is the signature of Southbrook in terms of quality and value,” said Redelmeier. “It gives us flexibility and gives consumers an authentic expression of what we are trying to do.

Southbrook Vineyards Organic Triomphe Riesling 2020

Southbrook Vineyards Organic Triomphe Riesling 2020, Niagara Peninsula, Ontario ($22.95)

Southbrook Triomphe Cabernet Franc 2018

Southbrook Triomphe Cabernet Franc 2018, Niagara Peninsula, Ontario ($24.95)

Southbrook Triomphe Gamay 2019

Southbrook Triomphe Gamay 2019, Niagara Peninsula, Ontario ($27.95)

Southbrook Triomphe Pinot Noir 2019

Southbrook Triomphe Pinot Noir 2019, Niagara Peninsula. Ontario ($29.95)

Southbrook Triomphe Cabernet Franc Rosé 2020

Southbrook Triomphe Cabernet Franc Rosé 2020, Niagara Peninsula, Ontario ($19.95)

Southbrook Triomphe Skin Fermented White 2020

Southbrook Triomphe Skin Fermented White 2020, Niagara Peninsula, Ontario ($29.95)


Dessert

We end with the dessert wines which are of notably high quality, including a 95pt 2015 Vidal Icewine, a delicious 2019 Late Harvest Vidal (that could technically have been labeled Special Select Late Harvest) and a gorgeous, long solera-aged, fortified wine called Anniversary. But the classicamong the sweet wines is the famous Southbrook Framboise, first made way back from raspberries homegrown on the Vaughan farm in the early 1990s. It is deliciously pure and precise and impeccably balanced, being awarded in every fruit wine competition it enters. It is coming to Vintages on June 26

Southbrook Triomphe Skin Fermented White 2020

Southbrook Canadian Framboise, Ontario, Canada ($19.95)

Southbrook Whimsy The Winemaker's Palette The Anniversary

Southbrook Whimsy The Winemaker’s Palette The Anniversary, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario ($29.95)

Southbrook Vidal Icewine 2015

Southbrook Organic Vidal Icewine 2014, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario ($54.90)   


With Niagara re-opening, the best way to discover the Southbrook range is to book a seated tasting at the winery, on the open-air patio, or the elegant, adjoining indoor tasting lounge. If you can’t make it to Niagara, Bill Redelmeier and his son, Andrew, are currently doing weekly personalized deliveries with their Purple Glove service. Either way there are some fascinating wines in store.

Cheers,

David Lawrason,

VP of Wine

This feature was commissioned by Southbrook Vineyards. As a regular feature, WineAlign tastes wines submitted by a single winery. Our writers independently, as always, taste, review and rate the wines – good, bad and indifferent, and those reviews are posted on WineAlign. We then independently recommend wines to appear in the winery profile. Wineries and wine agents pay for this service. Ads for some wines may appear at the same time, but the decision on which wines to put forward in our report, and its content, is entirely up to WineAlign.

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